Conference Report: Writing Lives Together: Romantic and Victorian Biography

Writing Lives Together: Romantic and Victorian Biography

University of Leicester, 18/9/2015

tennyson 2aOn a sunny day last September a good-sized group of scholars and students, mainly from the field of English literature, gathered at the University of Leicester to discuss a number of issues related to Romantic and Victorian biography. The conference’s double focus on both Romanticism and Victorianism was in itself remarkable in a field where, as a rule, the boundaries between different periods are jealously guarded, and where the Shelleys and the Brownings don’t invite each other for tea, much to the loss of scholars of either period. Events such as this are the most effective vaccine against the danger of parochialism inherent in too strong a reliance on conventional periodisation in determining the limits of scholarly inquiry: here, at least for a day, we were able to sharpen our sense of the literary and historical continuities between the two sides of, as David Amigoni put it in his keynote lecture, the “long, long, very long” nineteenth century, pre- and post-1837, and for this the organisers, Julia North and Felicity James, should be thanked.

Biographical writing, as it happens, is one such line of continuity – though a jagged and dashed one, as is invariably the case in literary history. While the nineteenth century did not invent biography, yet it made writers’ lives (and Lives) a cornerstone of the study of their works in a way that had not been there before. For the contemporaries of the great Romantics, poetry was “the internal made external”: the words on the page were the flower-like record of the vicissitudes of the poet’s soul, and, however etherealised away they might be from the rough matter of daily toil, yet had their roots firmly planted in it. In the Victorian period, although the older conception retained some of its currency, the arboreal metaphor acquired a wider variety of shapes. In both periods, at any rate, the uses of biography ranged from interpretive tool (understanding the man by looking at the work and vice versa), to a way of establishing a canon of writers whose works would constitute the centre of English literature, to a site for groups of like-minded readers to define themselves as the sort of people who read one kind of writer rather than another.

All these aspects were very much in the foreground in the day’s schedule, but the aspect that the organisers chose to highlight was the “together” in the title: all the various ways in which biography in the long nineteenth century partook of an element of sociability, collaboration, or collectiveness. All through the day, participants were able to choose between parallel sections devoted to such variegated matters as “intellectual families”, “artists and artisans”, “women writing together” (1 and 2), “the Brontë family”, “religious interactions”, “creative and digital lives”, “collaborative suppressions and experiments”, “Dickens’s lives”, and “literary communities: authors and publishers”, as well as two keynote sessions by Daisy Day and David Amigoni.

I shall not do a disservice to the day’s contributors by trying to summarise the content of single papers in this short space (you can find some of the details at http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/2015/10/05/emily-bowles-writing-lives-together-a-conference-on-romantic-and-victorian-biography/ and http://www.bars.ac.uk/blog/?cat=16). Instead, I shall limit myself to highlighting a few recurring themes which frequenters of this forum may find interesting. One such theme is how decisive the role of family members can be in determining both a writer’s output and how (s)he comes down in history; how each of the Brontë sisters might have turned out as a writer had she been born in a different family, for example, is anyone’s guess. Another is the richness of the interactions between the conclusions of literary historiography and all manner of author-related data: portraits, letters, friends’ memoirs, often telling stories that one could not have dreamed by merely looking at the work that the writers in question meant for publication. Yet another is the variety of the various forms of affiliations (familial, aesthetic, racial, ideological etc.) that writers establish with one another. In all these cases “authors” and “the world” do indeed interact in ways worth exploring. Reference was also made to new methods and sources for scholarship, including a database on nineteenth-century working class biographies managed by Helen Rogers (http://www.writinglives.org/) which should be of interest to both historians and literary scholars.

In sum, the day was a welcome opportunity to survey the work that is being undertaken on these issues in more than one furrow in the field, as well as to gain insight into a number of local matters. The publishers have plans to include a selection of essays based on the day’s proceedings in a special issue of the journal Life Writing to be published next year, so there will be ample opportunity for interested readers to see what kind of harvest will sprout from here.

 

 

 

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